Pixar’s latest movie, “Lightyear,” marks the studio’s first theatrical wide release after two years of having its feature films used as a loss leader to encourage Disney+ sign ups. It is the perfect movie to draw audiences back to theaters, with all of the joy and heart (and tear-jerking) one expects from a studio known for making millennials (and now their children) cry. However, considering “Lightyear’s” themes of facing your fears and opening one’s mind to the future, it’s ironic that Pixar’s own fears are one of the film’s greatest weakness.
It is the perfect movie to draw audiences back to theaters, with all of the joy and heart (and tear-jerking) one expects from a studio known for making millennials (and now their children) cry.
Pixar’s out-of-the-box success with its first feature film, “Toy Story,” in 1995, was made all the more remarkable by its refusal to automatically follow up with a sequel, instead focusing on telling new stories. It wasn’t until a deal with Disney in 1997 that “Toy Story 2” (originally meant as a straight-to-video project) was forced into theatrical release. That stood as the studio’s only sequel for a full decade; meanwhile, Pixar knocked out hit after (mostly) original hit, from “Finding Nemo” to “Up.” Then, 2010’s “Toy Story 3” gave the studio’s flagship franchise a rather final-feeling ending — that is, until “Toy Story 4” (ironically Pixar’s last major release to be unaffected by pandemic shutdowns), a gamble that luckily paid off for fans. (Pixar did make a few other sequels during that time, but those were few and far between.)
From that perspective, “Lightyear” might seem akin to “Rocky V,” yet another entry in a franchise that’s long overstayed its welcome. By rights, “Lightyear” should be the first “Toy Story” spinoff to be utterly unnecessary. The premise is so tangentially connected to the original film that the movie literally has to use explainer cards to make sure audiences aren’t confused. The key premise is derived from “Toy Story” star Andy’s original toys, many of which are merch from various fictional entertainment franchises. “Lightyear” is the movie from which the toy Buzz Lightyear was created. It’s the feature film equivalent of Pixar producing episodes of “Woody’s Roundup” for Disney+.
But the truth is, “Lightyear” has no need of these ridiculous byzantine connections to the long-running, already finished franchise. It stands on its own as a complete story, with plenty of heart, laughs and a nice third-act twist that feels both earned and satisfying.
The film opens with Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) checking out a new planet that looks as if it will support life but turns out to be far more hostile than he or his partner, Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), anticipated. Egotistical and overconfident, Lightyear refuses offers of help, insisting he alone can save the ship. And he fails. Buzz then becomes obsessed with “finishing the mission,” aka, getting off the planet and returning the crew of 1,200 to Earth. He risks his own life by flying daily tests to attempt the jump to hyperspace. But each day of tests equals four years of life on the planet, until one day he returns and discovers everyone he loved is gone, having lived full rich existences while he was focused on the past.
No longer in step with the new administration’s plans to colonize the planet permanently, Buzz steals a ship to continue testing, aided by his only friend: a robot cat named Sox (played by Peter Sohn, who steals every scene). This time, he returns to discover the planet under attack from the mysterious Emperor Zurg (Josh Brolin). The only people who can help him are three rookies and IVAN, the autopilot robot.
There are tons of references here that hardcore fans of the “Toy Story” movies will recognize, from Buzz’s costume details to the Zurg character, who was part of “Toy Story 2.” It’s also an opportunity for Pixar to round out the simplistic antagonists from its earliest releases. But the actual delights come from all the new additions. Keke Palmer, as rookie Izzy Hawthorne (granddaughter of Buzz’s original partner), is the heroine the “Toy Story” series never had. “Orange Is the New Black’s” Dale Soules has a field day as ex-convict conscript Darby Steel. And once again, Taika Waititi proves he is worth every single penny Disney is paying him as rookie Mo Morrison, who proves the pen really is mightier than the sword — when it counts.
The comparisons to “Toy Story” don’t do much for the film, other than remind audiences how far Pixar has come in its nearly 35-year history.
Moreover, the comparisons to “Toy Story” don’t do much for the film, other than remind audiences how far Pixar has come in its nearly 35-year history. (There is just no comparing the CGI from the 1990s films to some of the truly impressive sequences in “Lightyear.”) But as an actual sci-fi film, “Lightyear” is missing the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Toy Story,” which never forgot it was about toys. Those original adventures, though grand in miniature, were really no bigger than the toy box.
And that’s not even bringing up the quiet casting change which swaps the franchise’s original Buzz, Tim Allen, with the far less controversial Chris Evans. One could argue that the recasting is in part so “Lightyear” can divest itself of its origins. (The director claims it’s because this Buzz is “less goofy” than the “Toy Story” version, which is a stretch.) But then why tie back to “Toy Story” in the first place?”
Much of Hollywood remains convinced that if a project isn’t centered on a franchise audiences already know, they won’t pay attention to it. But for decades, Pixar has proved again and again this truism isn’t true. The studio told new stories and (mostly) refused to succumb to sequel-itis. “Lightyear” deserves to be seen as more than just yet another “Toy Story” entry. And Pixar should take its own advice to stop living in the past.